Authoritarianism, Radicalization, and Regional Prospects for Democracy
Thursday, May 14, 2015
JW Marriott Washington, DC
1331 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
The Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID) is proud to present the full conference report of its 16th Annual Conference in Washington D.C. that focused on “Authoritarianism, Radicalization, and Regional Prospects for Democracy.” In this 16th annual meeting that has become a coveted tradition and highly anticipated event for the Washington D.C., and indeed global, community, U.S. administration officials and policymakers, foreign dignitaries and activities, and scholars and academics from around the world gathered to exchange analyses of the current troubling situations in the Middle East and North Africa as well as provide targeted and detailed policy recommendations to restore hope for democracy taking root in the region.
In his welcoming remarks, Dr. William Lawrence, Director of MENA Programs at the CSID, stressed the importance of such an important gathering of the brightest minds and dedicated civil servants in cooperating in earnest to offer solutions to an ailing region of the world. Noting with great remorse the rise of radicalization and violence, as well as a return to authoritarianism following a brief respite of freedom in several of the countries that experienced revolutions in 2011, Dr. Lawrence opened the day’s discussions and deliberations in the spirit of productivity and mutual cooperation. With the United States as the greatest and most powerful democracy on the international stage, the world looks to its leadership with a hopeful eye and pays heed to its attitudes and approaches to democracy promotion worldwide.
It is in full and humble acknowledgement of this immense responsibility that this and every CSID conference is launched, whose proceedings and summaries aim to shape world politics toward a more peaceful, free, and democratic future.
Panel 1: Contested Legitimacy, Human Rights, and the Future of Democracy in Egypt
Dr. Michele Dunne, Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, opened up the panel with her remarks on the current state of affairs in Egypt. Exclaiming on the increasing antagonism initiated by the regime, she said she does not believe that al-Sisi’s regime is in real danger of faltering, but noted that there seem to be some slippage, particularly with the recent intelligence leaks in the media, that has started to expose the fault lines in his rise to power and rule. One of those main fault lines falls along the relationship between the government and civil society organizations and activists.
“The situation for civil society organizations right now is devastating and unusual,” she said, remarking on the nearly 400 organizations which the government says were affiliated with the Muslim brotherhood have been dissolved. She called particular attention to the fact that many of the organizations whose funding was seriously limited or who, more often, were closed entirely were charity organizations that provided a great number of social services on which many segments of the society depend very heavily. It is therefore worth studying the effects the void left by these organizations will have on communities across Egypt, and in the long-term, how community-regime relations may change.
Under Mubarak, though there were certainly considerable stresses and restrictions imposed by the government, civil society activists felt that their presence and work actually served the interests of the regime. Dunne says this is no longer the case, as many activists express growing concerns that the regime is actively fighting and seeks to eliminate them.
Dr. Shadi Hamid, Fellow in the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution, shed light on the internal machinations of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Through his interviews and conversations with both MB leadership and younger members, Hamid discerns a tension between a gradualism embraced by the leadership and the revolutionary spirit of the younger members, a tension that was only exacerbated with the military coup of 2013.
The Brotherhood had never been an anti-state organization, he explained, but rather believed the state could be Islamizedand made to reflect the cultural sensibilities of the populace. Explaining the perspective of the leadership, Hamid said “there was a belief that al-Sisi could be brought to their side,” ‘Islamized’ along with the state apparatus as a whole.
But as the confrontations between the military forces and civilian organizers grew more violent and brutal, the philosophical differences within the Brotherhood also intensified. It is this delicate balance between political pragmatism and the revolutionary spirit that Hamid stressed would decide the future of the Muslim Brotherhood’s relationship with the Egyptian state.
Ismail Alexandrani, Visiting Journalist in the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center, focused on the decades-long use of religious discourse within the Egyptian military and how this has translated as ample justification for General al-Sisi to call for a “religious reform” in the country. Under the pretext of combating terrorism and quelling popular uprisings, particularly in the Sinai peninsula, the military has framed its mission as one that was divinely mandated to defend the nation against domestic threats.
As part of this ongoing campaign, Alexandrani noted that “the army consistently uses Qur’anic verses and broader religious discourse in their speeches, and invites sheikhs from al-Azhar to mobilize and galvanize the troops and to tell them that they are fighting Khawarij [rebels] and that when they are killed they are martyrs.” In Alexandrani’s estimation, this framework amounts to a “failed task and impossible mission,” both because of the military’s incapacity to handle any sort of religiously-defined project but also because of the impracticality of the military to sustain a fight against its own people, particularly when those people are themselves fragmented and therefore perpetually elusive.
That a young child, as Alexandrani observed in his field research, can correctly identify the differences between various types of helicopters and the degree of the threat each pose is indicative of the growing systematization of violence in Egypt, and ought to provide the imperative for the beginnings of earnest peace talks.
Panel 2: Democratic Prospects: The Case of Tunisia
Meherzia Laabidi, Tunisian Parliamentarian and former Vice President of the Tunisian National Constituent Assembly, addressed the conference live from her office in Tunisia via Skype about the progress Tunisia has made in its path to democracy since 2011. Laabidi sought to answer the questions of why Tunisia has succeeded where others have failed, and what sorts of challenges remain ahead.
To this, Laabidi pointed to responsibility of politicians and elected leadership in leading the Tunisian people through the turbulence of the democratic transition and to realize the slogans and demands raised during the revolutionary protests of 2011 – that is, liberty and dignity. Thankfully, she said, the political parties that comprised the National Constituent Assembly and who were thus responsible for the writing of Tunisia’s new constitution “were all committed to democratization and working together to achieve the goals of the revolution.” This was something that set the Tunisian experiment apart from the rest, stressed Laabidi, in that the political leadership “repeatedly chose dialogue and negotiation over division,” quelling tensions during the many difficult times in which the country found itself over the past 4 years. This spirit of cooperation was and continues to be critical, particularly during election cycles when antagonism can easily flare and leadership is needed more than ever. A final point that Laabidi wanted to highlight was the tendency of the Tunisian political establishment to choose consensual methods over emphasizing a majority-rule democratic path.
“While Ennahdha refused to exclude ex-RCD members from politics in passing the Law of Exclusion, so too did President Beji Caied Essebsi refuse the exclusion of Ennahdha from politics after the 2014 elections,” allowing Tunisia to continue on its path to a strong and true democracy.
CSID Founder and President Dr. Radwan Masmoudi address was centered around how the United States can best make true of its promises to support democracy in the Middle East. Noting all the great strides the Tunisian people have been able to make in a relatively short period of time, there remain many obstacles ahead that could easily threaten the democratic transition in its entirety; said Masmoudi.
“Tunisia has shown that democracy is possible, but people are still waiting to see whether democracy will really deliver,” most especially on the economic front, where a significant – and growing – percentage of the population are unemployed and see no end in sight. While the United States has indeed been vocal about its support and amazement in the Tunisian democratic transition, a “Marshall Plan is needed to really make true of the rhetorical support expressed by the United States.”
This plan, he explained, would resemble that of the post-WWII initiative to rebuild Germany and would similarly reflect a concerted and prolonged commitment to offering deep support to key sectors of the Tunisian economy that must begin to show sustainable growth so that the political sphere can continue to move forward.
Finally, building upon Meherzia Laabidi’s remarks about the characteristics of the Tunisian experiment that have allowed it to succeed thus far, Masmoudi pointed to the debates and negotiations on the constitution as having been paramount not only for their own purpose – that is, passing a consensus-driven constitution – but in setting the important precedent of always choosing cooperation and compromise over discord and division. This, he said, is a key lesson for other countries in the region and around the world to take away from Tunisia.
Concluding the second panel of the conference, Dr. Thomas DeGeorges, Independent Scholar and Former Director of the Center for Maghreb Studies in Tunis posited two main lessons for other countries to learn from the Tunisian model and adapt to their own specificities.
First, the lesson of transitional justice, that he explained “if given proper time and effort, does work.” Establishing the institutions and legal bodies for the transitional justice process provide only temporary relief and stability in a post-revolutionary transition, he said, but what guarantees lasting prosperity is also embracing a spirit of compromise and dialogue between seemingly adversarial political and social groups. Furthermore – and this is something that sets the Tunisian case apart from the Egyptian one – working with and not stifling civil society organizations is key in bolstering the transitional justice process in particular, and the democratic transition in general.
DeGeorges reminded the conference participants of one noteworthy Tunisian institution that benefited greatly from the support and interventions of civil society organizations, both foreign and domestic, and that is the Iyadh ben Achour Commission of 2011, which was the ultimate decision-making body in the country prior to the elections for the National Constituent Assembly on October 23, 2011. In addition to these insightful remarks on the transitional justice process, DeGeorges also shed light on a lesser discussed subject, that is the imperative of the education sector to reconfigure its outdated paradigm in order to better equip young Tunisians to compete within the rapidly changing global markets. With this goal in mind, said DeGeorges, the goals of the revolution would be more fully and intelligently be achieved.
The first speaker at this year’s Keynote Luncheon was Dr. Maha Azzam, President of the Egyptian Revolutionary Council, whose remarks were some of the most invigorating and emotional ever delivered at a CSID conference. Speaking as the leader of a coalition network of Egyptian democrats in Europe, Azzam stated quite plainly that “the situation [in Egypt] is reminiscent of some of the worst excesses of the worst dictatorships known to the world.”
In order to plan the proper approach to remedying any given situation, one must first identify the problem in question, and in Egypt, that problem is the military regime, explained Azzam. With the judiciary and the media acting as de-facto arms of the regime, she lamented the total absence of the rule of law in Egypt and questioned how the United States and its democratic allies could possibly justify supporting such a regime.
Azzam used the phrase “surviving with great difficulty” to describe the state of the majority of Egyptians, those who can only observe the continuously degrading situation in their country and must keep silent. Echoing the remarks of Michele Dunne from the first panel, she highlighted the travesty that is the open season on civil society organizations and activists, exclaiming that the matter is not merely regarding organizations being allowed to function and receive funding, which she said emphatically they are not, but that “there is an active and systematic crushing of the Egyptian citizen’s right to survive,” whether by consciously participating in protest activities or even simply being an innocent passerby.
“I used to compare General al-Sisi to Chile’s Pinochet,” concluded Azzam, but since learning about the number of political prisoners in the whole of Pinochet’s rule, she found the comparison utterly erroneous.
The Founder and President of Ghad Al-Thawra Party in Egypt, Ayman Noor, addressed the conference attendees live from Al-Jazeera studios in Beirut, Lebanon. Looking back in the four years since the Egyptian revolution of 2011, Noor asked what was left of the calls for freedom, justice, and dignity in today’s Egypt, where all political and economic indicators show sharp declines across the board.
After 86 years since independence, Noor poignantly exclaimed: “we are back to the era of the one man: he is the party, the nation, the opponent, the judge, and the battle. The man came on March 7, 2013 raising the banner of the people. He said he was against tyranny in the name of religion, but brought the worst tyranny.” Within such a bleak context, the military regime led by General al-Sisi has been able to consolidate its hold on the economy, filling the pockets of its generals, and tighten its hold on the political arena, shutting out all opposition voices. Noor then spoke directly to the recent government leaks and provided his analysis of the main takeaways gained from them, which he coalesced into three main points. First, the leaks undermined the regime’s characterization of General al-Sisi as a strong man capable of regaining the country’s dignity and facing terrorism, showing him as the source of the increasing bloodshed and instability. Second, Noor argued that the leaks revealed that, rather than building new and stronger regional alliances and partnerships, Egypt enjoyed no such benefits and was rather facing increasingly unstable and feeble alliances.
Finally, the leaks revealed that rather than working to regain unity among the populace, General al-Sisi had not only failed to make a single tangible step forward, but was vigorously attacking the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization that represents a significant portion of the Egyptian people. Noor concluded his remarks on a rather positive note, though, predicting that “the regime will end, and it will end very soon,” insisting that all democratic forces in Egypt must focus on a workable roadmap following the fall of General al-Sisi.
Panel 3: Pathways to Democracy in the MENA Region, with a focus on Syria, Libya, and Yemen
Gerald Feierstein, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs at the U.S. Department of State spoke more directly than previous panelists on the attitudes and approaches of the Obama administration in addressing the myriad difficulties and crises plaguing the Middle East. In the revolutions of the Arab Spring, he spoke to the initial shock that “when the bandaid was pulled off, what lay underneath was not a scratch but a pretty deep wound” in societies that had all faced decades of complex and profound corruption and injustice.
Conveying the prevailing understandings of the U.S. government, Feierstein’s remarks clearly showed that the United States has been far more concerned with putting out the biggest fires in countries like Syria and Yemen than in addressing the real and pressing concerns of the Tunisian democratic transition or of the military coup in Egypt. “In the absence of any legitimate political order,” said Feierstein, “different groups resorted to violence, and the violence quickly spiraled out of control” in Libya and Syria, and more recently, in Yemen.
With regards to both the situations in Libya and Yemen, he expressed the explicit desire of the United States to work only in conjunction with and in support of the United Nations. The efforts in Libya and Yemen both comprise elements of advancing dialogue between various warring parties to bring about a cease-fire and end the cycle of violence and instability, he explained. Ending with a nod to the fourth anniversary of the Syrian revolution, Feierstein expressed the Obama administration’s hope to see Bashar al-Assad ousted and replaced “by a government that supports the Geneva convention,” though no specifics were provided regarding the characteristic and systematic killings of the Syrian regime and how those might be remedied in the future.
Jonathan Winer, U.S. Special Coordinator for Libya, provided important readings and analyses on the situation in Libya and the problems it poses not only for its own peace and stability, but for the region as a whole. Winer began by questioning the Libyan government’s ability to maintain security and stability for the country, noting the divisions within the government and its limited capacities given regional differences and tribes. But, asked Winer, what might a possible solution look like that would account for all the competing variables in the Libyan context?
To help answer that question, that certainly requires much more time and energy to properly address, Winer raised two very serious developments in Libya that policymakers must keep in mind moving forward. First, the emergence of ISIS in the country – and abhorrent violence it is committing and conflicts it has instigated, most notably with Egypt over the brutal murder of twenty-one Egyptian Coptic Christians in 2014 – and second, the increasingly devastating migrant phenomenon that has become an international humanitarian crisis. In order to tackle these myriad issues, Winer highlighted the problem of legitimacy in Libya, namely, the complexities of its origins from a technocratic government to tribes and cities.
Ultimately, concluded Winer, “Libya is not working for Libyans right now,” explaining that solutions must be found before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan this year lest instability reign permanently.
Dr. Najib Ghadbian, Special Representative to the United States for the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces , spoke directly and concretely about the complicated nature of Syria today and how and to what extent the United States and its allies can help bring an end to the brutal violence that has plagued the Syrian people for four years.
Ghadbian identified two main internal developments over the years since the Syrian revolution began that complicated the possibility of peace in the country, namely the Assad regime’s repeated use of chemical weapons against civilian populations throughout Syria and the rise of extremist groups, who were encouraged by the relative chaos to take matters into their own hands. To make matters worse, foreign actors began intervening and meddling in the escalation of the domestic conflict early on, and developed increasingly entrenched positions and interests in one side or another. But even in the darkest hours of the Syrian revolution, Ghadbian explained that there are a few very encouraging trends that have emerged in recent weeks and months. Two of those positive developments are the Geneva Communique – a roadmap and plan drafted by the United States and Russia, and endorsed by the Syrian Opposition, that would support a Transitional Governing Body (TGB) – and the game-changing shifts, both in Syria and elsewhere, on the ground that have allowed the Syrian Opposition to force the Assad regime back as well as served as blows to the regime’s strongest international ally, Iran.
Syrian revolutionaries, said Ghadbian, have seen the intervention of the GCC in Yemen “as a positive thing that would curb Iranian intervention in the region.” At the very least, Ghadbian concluded, “the moderate opposition must be supported” by the United States and its allies, and safe zones must be enforced in order to help displaced Syrians find relief from devastation and provide the opposition with the precious opportunity to govern.
Closing the third panel was Stephen Seche, Executive Vice President of the Arab Gulf States Institute of Washington, who focused his remarks on the most recent conflict in Yemen, more specifically on the motivations and intentions behind the Saudi Arabian intervention. “Saudi intervention,” argued Seche, “has less to do with Yemen than it does with sending messages” to what he identified as four different sets of actors.
First, the Saudi intervention can be understood in the context of the Sunni Kingdom’s competition with Shiite Iran for regional dominance, and therefore as a means of conveying to Iran that it would not allow Iranian control in its own backyard. Second, Seche argues that the Saudi intervention was intended to say to the United States that it wants to serve as the primary guarantor of security and stability in the Middle East. Third, because there has been a recent change in the Saudi internal power structure, King Salman wants to demonstrate his strength and resolve to his own people, and, as Seche explained, “there is no better way to do that than to go to war.”
The final target audience of the Saudi intervention is the Yemeni people themselves, to whom Saudi Arabia appears to be saying that it places very little weight, if any, on their desires and aspirations as a people so far as they might interfere with those of the Kingdom itself. With all of this multiplicity, Seche expressed a hope that policymakers would be able to understand the complex networks of actions and motivations in the Middle East, and come to more reasoned and nuanced approached to the region as a whole.
Panel 4: U.S. Policy Between Security, Stability and Democracy
Opening the conference’s final panel was Ambassador William Taylor, Vice President of the U.S. Institute of Peace. Throughout his career as a diplomat and top U.S. government official, Ambassador Taylor spoke to the attitudes and commitments of the United States towards Tunisia. Acknowledging the great support of U.S. President Obama and others have expressed in speeches throughout the years, and which have been followed up by financial aid to the tune of roughly $100 million yearly, he admitted that much more needed to be done in order to truly come to the aid of the Tunisian democratic transition in its hour of need.
“We need to commit to Tunisia,” said Ambassador Taylor, “and provide more material, financial support, but also political support,” reflecting the wide breadth of opportunities for cooperation between the two countries. With the visit of President Beji Caied Essebsi to Washington D.C. in late May, Ambassador Taylor believed it to be the optimal moment “for the United States to show the extent of its support to Tunisia” and give hope to the millions of people throughout the region who are still struggling for freedom and democracy.
Making true of its promise to support Tunisia, Ambassador Taylor said the United States would find “an investment well-made,” one that would yield immense benefits to the cause of justice and human dignity throughout the region and around the world.
Stephen McInerney, Executive Director of The Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) in Washington D.C., was next to speak on this final panel and addressed the shift in the United States’ support for democracy in light of security threats. “This country, and President Obama himself, used to make explicit statements to the effect of ‘security and stability are impossible without freedom and democracy,’ but this has unfortunately waned” and is no longer a priority for the administration. Instead, the U.S. government has returned to the former policy of trying to combat terrorism and put out fires in the region by placing the democratic aspirations of entire peoples on the back burner, and this is very much in contrast to the administration’s own prior statements and commitments, said McInerney.
Recalling President Obama’s Memorandum on Civil Society from September 2014, which stated the Administration’s resolve to “oppose undue restrictions on civil society and fundamental freedoms” around the world, McInerney lamented the fact that commitments such as this have gone largely ignored in the act of policymaking and execution.
What ought to happen to salvage and protect the fragile democratic transition in Tunisia, in McInerney’s estimation, is for the United States to provide greater sums and more long-term commitments of financial assistance to help shore up a struggling economy, as well as increasing trade agreements and Memoranda of Understanding that would establish more sustainable partnerships in the coming months and years. Without such actions, McInerney predicted that the Tunisian economy may well cause the derailment of the Tunisian democratic transition altogether.
Dr. Daniel Brumberg, Associate Professor in Democracy and Governance at Georgetown University and Special Advisor at the U.S. Institute of Peace, raised some excellent points in his remarks about both the policy record of the United States with regards to Tunisia in particular, and the Arab Spring revolutions more generally.
Drawing attention to the United States’ history of vacillation between engagement and withdrawal in the world, Brumberg suggested that “the administration has been cautious about the democracy agenda from the very start” of the revolutions, never fully committing but also never quite walking away.
This vacillation, he argued, is in and of itself a policy choice, and is one that has and continue to serve the interests of the United States as it perceives them. Speaking to the Administration’s engagement with civil society partners around the world, Brumberg echoed McInerney’s praise for the 2014 memorandum on civil society, but noted with reservation that “the strength of a civil society depends on the strength of the state,” and that without respected and legitimate state institutions, civil society cannot assume its intended role as a partner for peace and democracy.
Here, Brumberg pointed to the Egyptian and Libyan examples in particular and drew out Tunisia as “the happy exception to the darkness looming over the region.” In order for the United States to manage balancing security challenges with increasingly weak state institutions in these countries, concluded Brumberg, the United States must make clear and strong commitments to supporting free societies so that democracy can get back on track.
Concluding the conference’s last panel was Dr. Emad Shahin, Visiting Professor at Georgetown University and Distinguished Visiting Scholar at Columbia University, whose remarks helped tie the day’s discussions together on what democracy actually means and, hence, how it can be truly and fully supported.
Shahin began by asserting that there is an assumption of agreement on the definition of democracy which has proved to be quite detrimental in the actual application of democracy promotion, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa. Using public opinion polls and data collected in recent years, Shahin explained that the way Arabs perceived democracy can be summarized in three key phrases: first, emancipation and self-determination, second, social justice and equitable distribution of resources and opportunities, and finally, human dignity in every respect. “At least 75% of populations in Arab countries,” showed Shahin, “agreed or strongly agreed that democracy, with all its limitations, is the best form of government,” so why then has the implementation process proven to be so troublesome? In response to all the points about stability and security previously raised by numerous esteemed panelists, Shahin argued that the United States had engaged in “a deliberate redefinition of democracy; the slogan “democracy is not about elections” has allowed the United States to ignore or undermine elections and still somehow claim to support democracy.”
The impacts of such deliberate indeterminacy – namely growing marginalization and radicalization of certain segments of the population – create an unfortunate self-fulfilling prophecy. The sooner the United States and its allies can fully appreciate this phenomenon and the effects of its own vacillation, concluded Shahin, the better and more democratic future we can all enjoy.
With the conference drawing to a close, the final remarks were delivered by Dr. Rafik Abdessalem, former Tunisian Minister of Foreign Affairs and member of the Executive Bureau of Ennahdha Party in Tunisia.
Abdessalem echoed the same hopefulness and pride in the progress made as expressed by Meherzia Laabidi earlier in the day, and drew out “the art of making compromises and drawing consensus in a nascent democracy” as one of the greatest lessons learned through practice in Tunisia. Abdessalem suggested that it is a belief common to all leading political parties in the country that they must avoid polarization when possible and commit to cooperation in building the foundations of a sustainable democratic model in the country. However, he cautioned that while Tunisia has indeed made important positive steps forward in the political sphere, great challenges remain in devising a roadmap “to shore up political progress balanced with security and economic challenges.” Moderation is key, he said, in pursuing policies and plans to address the very high expectations and demands of the Tunisian people.
In conclusion, Abdessalem acknowledged that Tunisia is not an island and is very much affected by the growing instability and violence plaguing the region as it is concerned with the democratic aspirations of its neighbors becoming more and more unlikely. “It is important for us,” he exclaimed, “to remain neutral vis-a-vis the political instability and violence in Libya, though we also definitely have a vested interest in the resolution of the conflicts there.”
Abdessalem thus conveyed a great sense of both pride in his country’s exceptional progress and in the feeling of responsibility he feels in contributing to a sustainable model of democracy that can uplift the entire region and indeed, the world.
Receive free policy, publication, and event updates
The Center for the Study of Islam & Democracy (CSID) is a non-profit organization, based in Washington DC, dedicated to studying Islamic and democratic political thought and merging them into a modern Islamic democratic discourse.